The Irishman : Martin Scorsese comes full circle with this mournful eulogy to a lost era

Martin Scorsese’s latest crime drama The Irishman , starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, finds the master director on familiar territory, only this time, a little less flamboyant and a lot more introspective. 

 

Martin Scorsese may be the greatest director ever to walk the earth, or maybe, he is not. But one thing is certain , he is the greatest movie lover (and movie geek) to walk this earth. He has seen more films than his audience, his critics and his fellow filmmakers. Every film of his, no matter what the subject, is first, foremost an ode to cinema, which he loves to death. His films are consciously designed to remind the viewer of the exquisite art of telling stories through a perfect marriage of visuals and sound. And nobody uses references to other movies in his cinema the way Scorsese does; both to deepen the stories he is telling as well as to concisely convey the essence of the themes and characters. Just take the final scene in his iconic Raging Bull(1980): where acting legend Robert De Niro played Jake La Motta, a once heavyweight boxer, now bloated, washed out and all alone, is now practicing lines in front of a mirror. He is speaking the lines spoken by ‘the‘ acting legend Marlon Brando (as washed out boxer turned longshoreman Terry Molloy) in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront(1954) . In that one moment, Scorsese not only coneys the essence of the character of Jake, using another washed out (movie)Boxer Terry Molloy as a prototype, but also makes that spiritual connection between his and Kazan’s cinema as well as the acting of De Niro with the original Method master Brando. Or, take his other masterpiece Goodfellas(1990), which told the story of four decades of crime. Each decade is represented in the film as a sort of separate movie , shot in the style representative of the movies of that particular decade. Scorsese’s latest film The Irishman, is very similar in structure to Goodfellas as it tells a story of gangsters and crime  spanning over multiple decades. And here, in this film too he tries a similar device. The washed out digital colors of the present contrasted against the richly saturated color palette of the past. But the film also boasts of one of the most brilliant instances of ‘film reference within a film‘ , that  comes close to the end of this sprawling 3 &1/2 Hr. film. Mob boss Russell Bufalino(Joe Pesci) is arrested by the authorities and is slowly lead out of the apartment. And as they move into the street, we see a movie theater and the film that is playing is John Wayne’s The Shootist. The Shootist was Wayne’s last feature film, and in it, Wayne played an ageing gunfighter who is dying of cancer. Tragically, Wayne himself would die of cancer a couple of years after completing the film. Obviously , Wayne was the most iconic western hero of all times. The Western was to Wayne what the crime\Gangster drama is to Scorsese. Not just Scorsese, but to De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Harvey Keitel,….; so you see the connection. The Irishman is Scorsese’s own Shootist; as it is for all those great actors who became icons by playing gangsters in some of the greatest (Gangster) movies of all times : The Godfather films, Goodfellas, Mean Streets,… This is their last stand, the epilogue to their glowing careers. And like The Shootist, this film is also a very sad evocation of a lost era; an era of larger than life men and larger than life movies. It’s not for nothing the film is so long. It’s as long as Ben-Hur(1959), and just a few minutes shy of other epics like The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia, etc... In the 50’s and 60’s , this film would have been a roadshow spectacle,complete with an intermission and  projected on the biggest screen. Today, this film wouldn’t have been made if a streaming service like Netflix hadn’t stepped into produce it. So, it’s as much an ode to that big cinema experience (that we seem to have lost forever) as it is to a lost way of life.

 

And true to this spirit, the film is less a fast-paced shoot’em up gangster film, and more a meditative, elegiac, epic; in the vein of similar Scorsese films like Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ and Hugo. The film tells the story of Frank Sheeran(Robert De Niro), a World War II combat veteran who became a Mafia hitman and then a union leader, and who had a long, at times politically fraught friendship with Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” in which author Charles Brandt interviewed Sheeran  about his involvement in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran claims he killed Hoffa by shooting him twice in the back of his head while in a house in northwest Detroit (and it is exactly how it is portrayed in the film). But the film is not a whodunit regarding the disappearance of Hoffa. It’s more concerned with the examination of the close links that existed between the teamsters union, the mobsters and the political establishment during the heady decades of the sixties and seventies, when America emerged as the most powerful nation in the world. It’s also about the relationship dynamics among a group of closely knit characters bound by family, friendship and betrayal. It’s violent, funny and extremely tragic. In short, it has all the elements of a typical Scorsese film, with an additional emphasis on the political class as well. Scorsese has never directly  tackled the world of politics in his films before, But since Hoffa is a figure who was equally active in the machinations of the mob as well as politics of the time, Scorsese delves a little deeper into that world here . The  Kennedy Clan and Richard Nixon find prominent place in the film’s narrative. The main plot of the film involves a bromantic triangle involving Sheeran, his mentor Russel Bufalino and Hoffa. Sheeran, who is as much a union man as he is a mob man, is caught in the middle of the conflict that arises between his cool-headed mentor Bufalino and his hotheaded blood brother Hoffa. The film deals with the tough choices he has to make while navigating these diverse worlds. The film is told from Sheeran‘s perspective and as in many of Scorsese’s films, The Irishman too use the device of a narrator, or rather, an unreliable narrator to tell the story. There has been a lot of criticism of Brandt’s book, with several members of the press and law enforcement questioning Sheeran’s claims and some dismissing them as outright lies . Many have pointed out that Sheeran was hardly a big player in the south Philadelphia organized crime racket to have committed any murders, leave alone that of bigwigs like Hoffa or ‘Crazy’ Joe Gallo. So I guess, Scorsese’s framing device can work equally as a scathing satire of gangster braggadocio or the representation of truth as it happened. There are two flashbacks entwined together, set in two different time periods . First is set in the early 2000’s, where we see a 82 year old Frank Sheeran recounting the events of the past. The second is set in August of 1975, when Sheeran, Bufalino and their wives are going on a long journey by road to the wedding of Bufalino’s niece. What starts out as an innocuous and uninteresting journey suddenly turns eventful; on the way, Frank  finds out that he has been assigned to kill Hoffa. The film randomly cuts back and forth between the contemporary period, the road journey in 1975 and the story that take place from around 1950 to 1975. The film is structured in a way that the first and last 45 minutes of the film plays out as a prologue and epilogue respectively , and the real heart of the film is the middle 2 Hr. portion, where the driving force of the film is the character of Hoffa. The opening shot of the film glides through a catholic retirement home, locating an old Frank sitting alone in a wheelchair; it is a nod to a similar unbroken, lengthy take from Goodfellas where Henry Hill takes his girlfriend to Copacabana for the first date.But unlike Goodfellas, the sounds that accompany the scene is the somber ‘In the Still of the night’.  Frank Sheeran is what i’d call the typical De Niro character: A man in self-denial, who is forever hiding his true identity and true emotions and trying to project a persona that is very different from his own. And De Niro gives a superbly understated, virtuoso performance. Frank starts telling his story (to nobody in particular). He was a cold-blooded soldier in World War II(we get some disturbing images of Frank summarily executing German POW’s) . After returning from the War, He started out as a truck driver delivering meat. But once he fall in with some mob guys,he starts stealing from his employees. One such theft lands him in hot water and he is bailed out by the Union attorney Bill Bufalino. Seeing Sheeran‘s talent, Bill puts him in touch with his cousin, mobster Russell Bufalino. Russell takes Frank under his wings, and thanks to Russell’s patronage, Frank rises quickly to become a top Hit man for the mob. Even when Frank slips up sometimes ; as he does, when one of his jobs seriously hurt the business interests of Philadelphia crime boss Angelo Bruno(Harvey Keitel), Russell steps in to save his neck(in the most hilarious scene in the movie, where we see the sparring duo from Mean Streets reunite in an electrifying verbal duel) . These early portions play out episodically, without much dramatic intensity.

 

But the film comes alive when Pacino’s Hoffa makes his appearance. I am not a big fan of Pacino’s over the top ‘shouty Al’ performances, but this is one of the rare cases (as in Scarface and The Devil’s advocate) that his loud performance is not just a perfect fit, but also, there was no other way to play it, because Hoffa himself was a loud, theatrical blowhard who held his union together with his over the top antics and bullying. Before he makes his appearance, we hear Pacino’s booming voice on Frank Sheeran’s phone. Hoffa has heard about Sheeran’s talents and he needs someone like him for his union work. This is again taken directly from the book, in which Sheeran tells Brandt how he met Hoffa. According to Sheeran, the first time he and Hoffa ever talked was on the phone, in a conversation that Hoffa started by saying, “I heard you paint houses.” Those words were mob code meaning: I heard you kill people, the “paint” being the blood that splashes when you fire bullets into a body.To which Sheeran replied, “Yeah, and I do my own carpentry work, too.” Meaning: I also dispose of the dead bodies. Sheeran’s first job as Hoffa’s man is to destroy the activities of a rival union. From thereon, Sheeran’s clout would grow to a point where he becomes Hoffa’s confidante and right hand man. At the time, Hoffa was engaged in a bitter battle with the Kennedys, especially Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who had set up a ‘Get Hoffa‘ squad to indict Hoffa by any means. It’s in these portions that Scorsese becomes  a ‘political’ filmmaker in the mold of Oliver Stone, dropping broad conspiracy theories about  JFK’s election as president,  his subsequent assassination and  the Mob’s strong participation in both. Broad parallels are also drawn between the characters of Hoffa and Richard Nixon; their rise and  downfall paralleling each other, starting with Hoffa donating 500 thousand dollars to Nixon’s election fund. Nixon loses the election and in comes the Kennedys to  power, who go after Hoffa with a vengeance. After the debacle of the ‘Bay of Pigs’, RFK doubles down on his efforts to indict Hoffa to take the public attention away from the Cuban debacle (That’s how Hoffa interpret the events in the film). And just when Hoffa starts believing that the worst is behind him; after JFK’s assassination and RFK is removed as attorney general , Hoffa is arrested and convicted in 1964 for jury tampering. Hoffa is eventually released via a Presidential pardon from Nixon in 1971.After his return from prison Hoffa tries to reclaim the power over the unions, much to the chagrin of the Mafia. In Hoffa’s absence, his replacement  Frank Fitzsimmons had become the blue-eyed boy of the Mafia; Fitzsimmons has been using Unions’ pension funds for making interest-free loans out to the Mafia.  Naturally, they didn’t want Hoffa retaking control of the unions. They recruit Bufalino to talk things out with Hoffa , but Hoffa refuse to relent . Driven by pride and ego, he is hellbent on taking control of the union. no matter what.

 

Things come to a a boil at a Testimonial dinner in Sheeran’s honor; attended by members of both the mob and the union and presided over by Hoffa. During the course of the dinner Bufalino tries to reason with Hoffa, but fails miserably. Bufalino then asks Sheeran to convince Hoffa to withdraw from his union activities. Bufalino warns that things have come to a tipping point and if Hoffa doesn’t comply, then the consequences are going to be grave for Hoffa. The term that is bandied about between them is: ‘It is what it is‘, which means that if Hoffa wouldn’t relent, he is going to be killed. What follows next is an extraordinary scene between De Niro and Pacino, perhaps even greater than their ‘restaurant‘ scene in Michael Mann’s Heat; De Niro’s Sheeran trying his best to convince Hoffa to give up, while Pacino’s Hoffa is unrelenting in his resolve to take back the union. Scorsese has commented about the ‘meta‘ nature inherent in the onscreen interplay between Pacino and De Niro. it’s fully evident in this scene, with De Niro, as subtle, understated and cagey as ever, dueling with a boisterous, outgoing Pacino. Hoffa is so confident about his omnipotence that even the threat of ‘It is what it is‘ , doesn’t shake him. Hoffa firmly believes that he is  untouchable, because he has a lot of secret documents about the mafia in his possession and if anything ever happened to him, they would all end up in prison. Alas, Hoffa didn’t count on the Mafia to recruit Sheeran to kill him. His blind faith in Sheeran turns out to be his undoing, as he blindly walks into the trap set by Sheeran and is killed. Earlier, there is a scene where we find Hoffa and Sheeran salivating over a sexy Mo Dean on Television, sitting behind her husband John Dean during his testimony to the congress on the Watergate Scandal. Sheeran calls Dean ‘a rat’ for betraying Nixon, but Hoffa corrects him, saying that Dean is a ‘smart rat’. Right there  we get the ultimate parallel between Hoffa and Nixon, and as you would see, Sheeran would turn out be Hoffa’s John Dean. After the exit of Pacino’s Hoffa, the film again goes into an episodic mode, with montages depicting the final days of Sheeran and his gang. They are all eventually convicted on various charges  and one by one, they begin to die in prison. Sheeran is eventually released and placed in a nursing home.. But before that, De Niro gets a great scene in which he talks to Hoffa’s wife after Hoffa’s assassination. He can barely bring himself to pick up the phone and talk to her, and finally when he does, he can hardly utter a word, just mumbling his way through the conversation. It’s a vintage De Niro moment.

 

As is the case with a majority of Scorsese’s movies, The Irishman depicts a man’s world, where women are just silent presences or outsiders. Here Scorsese goes one step further, treating the silences of the women as more deafening than all the bullets and bombs that are exploded throughout the film. Their silences are portrayed as  extreme disapproval of their way of life, most effectively realized through the character of Sheeran’s daughter Peggy( played by Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as an adult). She represents the moral center of the film: Sheeran’s  conscience  nagging away at him even as he remains in self-denial. Peggy is even harder on Bufalino,who is childless. Bufalino tries hard to win Peggy’s favor by showering her with presents, but she remains cold towards him. On the other hand, she gets on extremely well with Hoffa, who is everything her father and his mafia friends are not. Hoffa is warm, open ,funny and has a great love for Ice cream, things that endear him to Peggy. But once Sheeran kills Hoffa, she breaks all connection with her father. Even when an old and ailing Sheeran tries his best to reconcile with her,she refuse to respond, backing away when Sheeran comes to her workplace to meet her. Though Scorsese has always made his crime\gangster films to denounce their way of life, the flashier technique that he used to tell those stories and the boisterous attitude of the protagonists sometimes give off the vibe that he is celebrating and glamorizing that world. But in this film Scorsese makes his disapproval in no uncertain terms. The film is totally devoid of any ostentatious styling or flamboyance and the pacing is also very measured. it doesn’t have the pace of a Goodfellas or Casino. One gets the feeling that Scorsese, who is 76 years old now, has started thinking about his own mortality and identifies strongly with Sheeran’s character.

Apart from Pacino and De Niro, who have done their best work in years, Joe Pesci gives a spellbinding performance as Russel Bufalino. He is all glances and nuances, creating a character that’s a total opposite of the flamboyant Tommy in Goodfellas. Pesci, who had retired from acting, had to be coaxed out of retirement by Scorsese and De Niro to participate in the film. Stephen Graham gives a delightful performance as Hoffa’s nemesis Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano. The scenes between   him and Pacino are outrageously funny, especially the one in prison which ends in a fistfight. Incredibly, this is the first time Pacino and  Scorsese have worked together and Scorsese  uses him well.Though on the surface, it would appear that Pacino is slipping into his over the top mode, that’s not the case. It’s an extremely layered, nuanced and ‘different’ performance. There are times when we  find him searching hard for the right word to express himself, other times he is in full flow , delivering  Hoffa’s flamboyant  speeches as only he can. I am sure that De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and Scorsese would all win nominations for this years awards. A word about the de-aging process used in the film: It’s not perfect – the very young version of De Niro appear to be suffering from too much Botox, it gets better when the characters get older-, but it does not distract from the performances, though at times i did feel that their body language does not match up to their  youthful faces. The Irishman is the most expensive film  Scorsese has made in his career and also his longest. There has been a lot of criticism about the length, and i personally feel that the prologue and epilogue could have been edited down to get the film to 3 Hrs. There are some scenes at the end of the film that does bog the film down. In the case of Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York, i had felt that it  would have benefited immensely with an additional half an hour to the running time, the final portions of that film was heavily edited and it did not register properly. But that film was made under strenuous circumstances with Scorsese having to compromise due to heavy pressure from Harvey Weinstein. But with Netflix giving him carte blanche in the making of this film, i guess he just indulged himself , without bothering about the running time. It’s just a minor peeve in what was a truly a rewarding cinematic experience. i really don’t know how many more movies he has left in him, but Scorsese continues to be prolific. He has already started work on his next : an adaptation of  Killers of the Flower moon by  David Grann, starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Robert De Niro.